Combating illiteracy

Why can’t Tennessee students read? State officials have a hunch, and a plan

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat
Nashville first-grader John Little reads a story at the 2016 kickoff of Tennessee's "Read to be Ready" initiative.

In a state that has undergone sweeping education reforms during the last five years, one gnawing question persists:

Why can’t Tennessee students read?

After all, statewide math achievement scores are up, science scores are up. And the state has made an unprecedented investment in improving K-12 education since winning its $500 million federal Race to the Top award in 2010.

Yet with reading, considered the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas, just over 48 percent of Tennessee students in grades 3-8 passed the state’s proficiency bar last year, down 2 percentage points from the state’s peak in 2013. And on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card, only one-third of Tennessee fourth-graders earned a proficient reading score.

The baffling data is the impetus for a statewide reading initiative kicked off Wednesday by Gov. Bill Haslam, first lady Chrissy Haslam and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

Dubbed “Read to be Ready,” the initiative hones in on reading development in early elementary grades and aims to get 75 percent of the state’s third-graders proficient by 2025. Currently, less than half of Tennessee third-graders reach that bar.

“The old saying is you learn to read up until the third grade, and then you read to learn after that,” Haslam said before the kickoff event in Nashville. “We’re concerned that if too few of our kids are proficient in the third grade, then they won’t be ready for all the learning that comes after.”

The initiative calls for deeper literacy instruction that draws meaning from the text, rather than just decoding letters. It also focuses on working with struggling students by providing stronger intervention strategies to address both academic and non-academic obstacles.

Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch.
PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the statewide launch.

Haslam’s proposed budget for 2016-17 includes a $9 million investment to create a network of literacy coaches and regional coordinators supporting literacy efforts across the state.

The good news, leaders say, is that Tennessee districts already are prioritizing reading development in early grades. This school year, 106 of the state’s 142 districts list reading as a top priority. Eighty percent of districts hired instructional coaches to support teachers, with most of their efforts aimed at improved literacy instruction. Teachers also have increasingly devoted more of their professional development hours toward the challenge.

The bad news is that, despite all these efforts, reading scores remain generally flat across the state, presenting “a true ethical and moral dilemma,” McQueen says.

Following last year’s disappointing reading results, McQueen and the Tennessee Department of Education sought to identify the barriers to literacy by commissioning several studies and enlisting the help of researchers from TNTP, a New York-based organization that seeks to ensure that poor and minority students get equal access to effective teachers.

"Teachers are spending time on skills, but they are rarely making the leap from decoding to reading."Setting the Foundation report

Based on a report released to coincide with the initiative’s kickoff, researchers found that teachers are in fact spending time on reading skills, but students are rarely making the leap from decoding letters and words to the actual act of reading.

Two-thirds of K-2 lessons observed by the researchers focused on phonics and other word recognition abilities. But most did not provide students with opportunities to use their newly acquired skills to read and write. And little attention was given to the critical thinking building blocks that literacy experts consider key to later academic success.

In grades 3-5, researchers found that students spend relatively little time reading during school literacy blocks. “Lessons themselves did not push students to engage with the words on the page,” the report says.

Such connections are particularly important for economically disadvantaged students who often have limited experiences to develop rich vocabulary and contextual knowledge outside of school. “These students’ proficiency rates in third grade reading are half those of their (more affluent) peers,” the report said. “Without focused instruction we are unlikely to close the significant gaps that we see across our student populations.”

Not surprisingly, the report says, Tennessee’s reading gaps are particularly wide for students who are economically disadvantaged, racial minorities, disabled, and English language learners.

One problem is that too many students are missing time in school. According to the study, 10 percent of Tennessee third-graders missed almost half a year of school between kindergarten and third grade. “Because we know that chronic absenteeism in the early years is associated with poor reading, we must address this issue,” the report says.

Read to be Ready is the first major education initiative created and rolled out under Candice McQueen, who became the state’s education chief in January 2015 and was charged with continuing the reforms begun in 2011 under Race to the Top.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Dollar General’s Denine Torr (left) presents a gift for the state’s literacy work to first lady Chrissy Haslam, Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

Read our 2015 story offering an early look at McQueen’s reading initiative.


“We have to approach this work from multiple angles,” McQueen said Wednesday, “strengthening the training that our teachers receive, deepening community partnerships to provide support for students and families after school and during the summer, as well as preparing our youngest students with early literacy skills before they ever enter a classroom.”

As part of the kickoff, Tennessee-based Dollar General Corp. announced a $1 million donation through its Dollar General Literacy Foundation to fund summer reading initiatives across the state.

Fighting summer slide

Nine Memphis schools will have state-funded summer reading camps

PHOTO: TDOE
Children participate in a 2016 summer reading program in Lauderdale County in West Tennessee as part of the new grant-based literacy program overseen by the Tennessee Department of Education.

For the first time, Memphis is getting a slice of a state grant to boost literacy rates through summer camps.

Nine Memphis schools in both Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District will host reading camps funded by the second annual Read to Be Ready Grant Program. Overall, $8.5 million is being disbursed among more than 200 schools, compared to a dozen schools last year.  

The Tennessee departments of Education and Human Services have earmarked $30 million for the summer programs over the next three years. It’s part of the state’s larger Read to be Ready initiative, which aims to get 75 percent of third-graders proficient in reading by 2025.

“Summer reading loss can have a significant impact on the academic progress made by our students during the school year,” said first lady and literacy advocate Chrissy Haslam. “These Read to Be Ready summer programs are an innovative and strategic approach to combating that summer slide and improving reading proficiency across the state.”

The camps are in addition to 20 Shelby County district-funded sites to fight against a learning phenomenon known as “summer slide.”

While all students can fall behind academically during the summer break, students from low-income families are affected disproportionately, often losing two to three months in reading achievement, while their more affluent peers tend to make slight gains.

Memphis schools receiving state funding for their camps are:

  • Aspire Coleman, Achievement School District
  • Aspire Hanley 1, Achievement School District
  • Aspire Hanley 2, Achievement School District
  • Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, Achievement School District
  • Libertas School of Memphis, Achievement School District
  • Willow Oaks Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation, Shelby County Schools
  • Rozelle Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Memphis Business Academy, Shelby County Schools

See the full list of 2017 summer grant recipients and program directors on the department’s website.

It takes a village

Nashville’s third-graders trail the state in reading proficiency. Here’s the city’s plan to change that.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Nashville's J.E. Moss Elementary School check out reading options on a bookmobile sponsored by Parnassus Books, a local bookstore. A new citywide initiative aims to bring in more community partners to support the district's literacy efforts.

As Tennessee grapples with its reading problem, Nashville has kicked off its own literacy effort aimed at accelerating the reading skills of the city’s youngest students.

The Nashville Literacy Collaborative recently launched as a six-month initiative organized by the Nashville Public Education Foundation and the Nashville Public Library in coordination with Mayor Megan Barry’s office and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

Only 34 percent of the Nashville district’s third-graders read at grade level, compared to 43 percent statewide. Third grade is viewed as a critical reading milestone from which children can read to learn in later years.

“Reading at grade level is a major indicator for a child’s academic success, and a child’s academic success is a strong indicator for the future of Nashville,” Barry said in a statement. “The Nashville Literacy Collaborative will provide critical insights that will help us better understand and support the city’s early literacy needs.”

While Tennessee’s year-old Read to be Ready initiative focuses primarily on supporting teachers and changing the way reading is taught, Nashville is seeking to involve community members to reinforce the work of its school system.

“As a school district, we have to focus on improving first-time instruction as well as interventions when students fall behind,” Superintendent Shawn Joseph said. “But our efforts will be far more effective with a community-wide strategy to support our work.”

Lipscomb University will lead research for the campaign, mapping existing community efforts and identifying gaps in services. Organizers hope to have a clear plan for how the city can support students’ reading by this summer.

A 20-person community group began meeting in February. The collaborative will also seek input from literacy groups, faith and volunteer partners, parents, students and educators.

Members of the working group are:

  •         Angie Adams, PENCIL
  •         Elyse Adler, Nashville Public Library
  •         Harry Allen, Pinnacle Financial Partners and Chamber Education Report Card
  •         Paige Atchley, Tennessee Department of Education and Read to be Ready
  •         Dr. Adriana Bialostozky, Vanderbilt Hospital
  •         Carolyn Cobbs, Cumberland Elementary School
  •         Monique Felder, MNPS
  •         Rae Finnie, Glengarry Elementary School
  •         Tari Hughes, Center for Nonprofit Management
  •         Shannon Hunt, Nashville Public Education Foundation
  •         Melissa Jaggers, Alignment Nashville
  •         Erica Mitchell, United Way of Metropolitan Nashville
  •         Laura Moore, Mayor’s Office
  •         Kent Oliver, Nashville Public Library
  •         Tara Scarlett, Scarlett Foundation
  •          Renata Soto, Conexión Américas
  •         Melissa Spradlin, Book’em
  •         Amanda Tate, Nashville Public Library Foundation
  •         Denine Torr, Dollar General Literacy Foundation
  •         Whitney Weeks, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce